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A female sockeye salmon lays her eggs in a stream north of Chase, B.C. Because of drought conditions this year, there’s a higher than normal mortality rate among the salmon.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

The tribal council representing eight First Nation communities in British Columbia's Okanagan has suspended the area's recreational and commercial sockeye salmon fishery – and says a full closing of food fishing is likely coming – as the salmon run comes in far lower than expected.

The Okanagan Nation Alliance was set to open the fishery on Osoyoos Lake this weekend with a historic salmon run forecast for the Columbia River system. But only about 18,000 to 45,000 of the projected 375,000 fish are expected to survive the journey.

"We were ramping up fisheries and prepping for full scale fisheries on all fronts for our food needs, for the recreational and the commercial fishing, with surpluses to be had," said Richard Bussanich, a fish biologist with the Okanagan Nation Alliance. Because of drought conditions, there's a higher than normal mortality rate among the salmon.

"It doesn't look good," he said.

The Department of Oceans and Fisheries already announced the suspension of recreational fisheries in the Okanagan this week.

The decision by the Alliance to not take out a commercial fishing licence from the federal government comes as worsening drought in the province means many streams are lower and warmer than normal. Food fishing by native groups is still permitted, but a shutdown will likely follow suit. "The fish aren't there," Mr. Bussanich said.

Mr. Bussanich noted that the United States has also closed its fisheries along the Columbia River system.

Earlier this month, the province banned angling in streams and rivers throughout the South Okanagan, which currently has a Level 3 out of 4 on the drought rating scale. At Level 3, conditions are considered "very dry."

On Wednesday afternoon, the province announced a fishing closing for Middle Shuswap River because of warming temperatures and low flows.

The Okanagan Nation Alliance has been working for more than a decade with native communities in Washington, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the province of British Columbia to restore the Okanagan sockeye run. The salmon stock dipped to less than 5,000 fish in the 1990s.

And they have seen remarkable success: "We saw this reversal over the last few years of seeing half a million sockeye make it back each and every year," Mr. Bussanich said.

"We were expecting cycles for sure, ups and downs, but we were on a trajectory for good success."

Indeed, the Okanagan salmon has adapted over time to survive in warmer temperatures. Whereas Pacific salmon usually need cold water to survive (the Fraser River run, for example, becomes increasingly weak and susceptible to die-offs whenever water temperature reaches above 18 C), the salmon swimming in the Okanagan can live in 20 C to 22 C waters.

"But even these super fish [that] … have adapted over time to warmer conditions, they even have their limits," Mr. Bussanich said.

With worsening drought conditions, more fish than ever arrived showing signs of lesions and fungi, swimming off route in search of cooler waters, or floating dead in stream.

"At any given year, maybe one in 10 fish will go through these physical stressors, but this year we're seeing even higher rates – anywhere between 30 and 50 per cent of the fish are showing these signs."

"We're not expecting good survivals," he said.

Although Mr. Bussanich is hopeful the sockeye population will bounce back after this run, that could change if the region sees multiple years of drought.

"One year is acceptable," he said. "If we start getting into two or three years, especially if we're expecting lower than normal returns … then we're going to be into some interesting times."

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